When you run into an old friend in the street who you haven't seen in years, the meeting usually goes down one of two ways. In the better scenario both parties are delighted to see each other, exchanging warm hugs and hearty backslaps, and immediately slipping into excited catch-up banter. "My my!" we cry, jovially. "I've not seen you in aaaaaaaaaaaaaages! Let's go for a drink."
But in the second, less frequent case, things are a bit more awkward. You might start with that odd moment where you both make eye contact, where each person only half-recognises the other. You dither about whether or not you should start a conversation, but they look kind of expectant, so you say hello - and immediately regret the decision. You exchange inane details: your current job, the place you live, the name of your current partner. You swap phone numbers and email addresses - even though you have no intention of ever seeing them again. Eventually you both make excuses and part ways, skulking down the road with you head bowed in vague embarrassment. And though it's shameful to admit, you rather wish the whole encounter hadn't happened.
I'm still undecided on how I feel about the return of True Crime. On the one hand, it's a veteran series - and it's always nice to see old brands making a comeback. On the other, True Crime was never the greatest franchise in the first place - an also-ran in the industry contest to produce a decent Grand Theft Auto rival. This latest incarnation has been announced some five years after the lukewarm TC: New York, and in the intervening time period the bar for sandbox jaunts has been raised considerably by the likes of GTA IV, Assassins Creed 2 and Red Dead Redemption. In light of such competition, it's undoubtedly a difficult time for any open-worlder to step up to bat. Still, there's a new developer on board for the series, with Luxoflux passing the reins over to Modnation Racers developer United Front; it seems like a bit of a leap to go from cart-racing to gangster beat-downs, so it'll be intriguing to see how they handle the switch.
This new True Crime has adopted Hong Kong as its urban playground of choice - an interesting choice of setting that could perhaps help the game to stand out from the pack. The gist here is that you're playing as a chap called Wei - an undercover cop who's attempting to infiltrate the local Triad organisation. Needless to say this is a pretty risky endeavour, one that will place him in several tricky situations that can only be resolved by carefully murdering absolutely everyone in the immediate vicinity, and as Wei gets drawn deeper into the underworld he'll find that his loyalties and sense of identity may begin to blur. United Front openly cites Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs as its main point of inspiration, but anyone who's seen that film - or Scorsese's US remake, The Departed - will know that's clearly a good thing.
Infernal Affairs was largely a rather slow-moving and tense story, but True Crime's gameplay is modelled after the hyper-kinetic violence of Hong Kong action flicks. Wei is a bit of a of a pro when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, laying into his foes with fists, flying kicks and pretty much anything that comes to hand. An Arkham Asylum-style counter system alerts the players to incoming attacks, and it seems as if there'll be plenty of opportunities for creative violence using the environment - throwing gangsters into industrial bins, or smashing them in the face with the door of a nearby fridge. Wei's chop-socky skills will even come into play when you're using guns: you might kick an oil can into a group of foes and then detonate it with a well-aimed bullet.
Going by the hands-off demo at Activision's recent showcase, this dynamic combat seems like the strongest element of the new True Crime. The level on display found Wei storm his way through a drug-laden warehouse, and during this outing the demonstrator made a great effort to show off the hero's athleticism - fly-kicking over balconies and up stairs at every opportunity, and sliding over coke-covered tables, causing little white clouds to puff into the air. The game seems to revel in nastiness too: highlights of the preview found Wei pushing a mobster face-first into an extractor fan, and carving up a foe with a machete via a painful-looking execution move. He's a foul-mouthed blighter, too - growling "C'mere, f*cker!"as he grabs a nearby thug for yet another beating.
While less was shown of the vehicle-based side of proceedings, the brief driving sections suggested a gritty and downbeat depiction of nocturnal Hong Kong, all shadows and burnt orange gloom. With a game of this size you've obviously got to be quite careful about reading too much from a single, fleeting demo, but the sense I got was that True Crime is taking itself quite seriously - though obviously the tone will be tempered a bit by the over-the-top martial arts stuff. It seems that Wei's gymnastic skills won't be limited to his on-foot activities either, as one physics defying moment found him leaping from one moving vehicle to another, Wheelman-style.
One defining feature of the previous two True Crime games was the freedom to play as a noble, law-abiding cop or as corrupt, murderous bastard. Unsurprisingly, given the suitable premise, this system will return in some way - although apparently there won't be much in the way of branching points in the story, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. I'd assume that there will be multiple endings at the least, although the Activision rep I questioned didn't seem too sure about that. Either way, there's certainly potential in the undercover plotline, and the swathe of combat options look like they could be rather fun. It's early days yet, but we'll have to see whether True Crime has the substance to make its return a worthwhile one.
True Crime: Hong Kong is scheduled for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 later this year.